Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 8 November 2013

"The Elephant Tests" by Matt Merritt (Nine Arches Press, 2013)

There's no such thing as a typical Merritt poem. One's unsure what a poem will become by the time the end is reached, what the mix of anecdote, symbolism, observation and argument will be. There's fluidity (vehicle becoming tenor and v.v.), lightness of touch, and a lack of self-indulgence. He's a poet who takes readers with him, involves them, explains things - why bother using half as many words if it takes readers three times longer to reach the first level of understanding?

I'll focus first on the 5 elephant poems

  • "Ganesha" - "He's gazed at the fanlight since the day/ I took possession, god of the mantelpiece ... He greets each suspiciously-familiar tomorrow/ with the same open hand". This, the book's prelude, touches on several themes that later poems develop - an elephant in the room (a Hindu God with a thousand names); days and hinges; change and constancy.
  • "The Elephant in the room". The title's taken literally. But how did it get there? Maybe the poem/house was built around it. Maybe it's pink or white. Then the elephant becomes more active, argues its case for its social mores. How are you going to get rid of it? It has found you wanting and it won't forget.
  • "Six poets consider a blind elephant in Cairo" - I didn't know until I read the notes that "an elephant in Cairo" is a technical term in computing; a target added to test search routines. Here that idea's merged with an older one. When the poem ends, only the poets are left, the others having gone home. The poets argue that "the search, in itself, was what really mattered", but "the hunt is long since over" so why are they still there? To parse?
    There is still no agreement as to whether or not
    language is ever equal to an elephant
    when the bored creature
    shifts from foot to foot and threatens
    to render the whole discussion academic
  • "Elephant Tests" - More attempts at definition. It will be many things: a despot, a radio-telescope, a gift, "the language you're fluent in, but don't remember learning". "If it walks like an elephant, swims like a duck, and quacks like a poem,/ however will you call it?"
  • "Seeing the Elephant" - a phrase that the notes explain; something anticipated as life-changing which ends up as a disappointment. It's my favourite of the elephant poems. "Each night the world ends ... but by morning is replaced by a perfect facsimile ... And since forgetting is so much of what we are,/ sometimes we can live the way we did before ... You still don't know what the elephant looks like,/ but today looks a lot like the elephant"

A theme in these elephant poems is definition, especially of poetry (perhaps even of his poetry). That theme is continued in "The Mind's Skyline" (which is about constructing a poem around that phrase) and "Watching Woodcocks, 25.4.10" where "The birdwatcher's problem becomes the poet's. ... How to make yourself/ more camera than birdwatcher or poet/ before you are gone/ into the black bead of its eye".

His profession involves birds, though sky features as often as bird-watching. Some poems reminded me of Holub's. There are long poems ("Ravens, Newborough Warren" being my favourite), though I think I prefer the shortest ones - "Magnetite", "Prayer", the apparently effortless "Butterflies". I don't think there are sonic/metrical effects anywhere, though he uses typography judiciously - "Smoke" uses gaps in a way I can understand

into another         another
(ad infinitum)

And yet, despite the variety and sustained interest of these poems, I think I marginally prefer his previous collection, Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, because in this latest book my impression is that there are more

  • themes I've seen before. True, the treatment here offers fresh twists, but a few poems end with phrases suspiciously similar to "and then I woke up", and "A long exposure" sounds familiar.
  • phrases I think I've heard before - e.g. "paths lacking conviction" (p.40), "houses hunker down" (p.42), "horizon-hugging sun" (p.57), "Memory abhors a vacuum" (p.69)
  • list poems (not my cup of tea) - "Birds we didn't see", "Birds Encountered Elsewhere", "Overheard in the hide", "Patsy Parisi's Blues (Slight Return)". Several other poems have a list structure including "Six Ways ..." and "Nine Ways ..." both of which I like.
  • long poems which only twist at the end - "The Dark Ages" (almost a tagged-on twist), "In Camera" (not much of a twist), "Once and Future Kings"

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